Saturday, April 08, 2017

`Galligaskins Are Out of the Question'

Forgetting can be merciful even when it’s confounding. Remembering everything would be a paralyzing curse, like living in the world’s largest library without a catalogue. Among my vanities is pride of memory. It can be a handy gift for a writer, especially when one memory links effortlessly to another. The trick is knowing how and when to stanch the flow of digressions, and to recognize when you’re boring others and yourself. Life is not a trivia contest.

I have read Tristram Shandy many times and could swear I’ve never before seen the word “galligaskins” in this suggestive passage from Vol. 4, Chap. XXVII: “But the truth was, that Phutatorius knew not one word or one syllable of what was passing--but his whole thoughts and attention were taken up with a transaction which was going forwards at that very instant within the precincts of his own Galligaskins, and in a part of them, where of all others he stood most interested to watch accidents.”

What sent me back to that peculiar word and Sterne’s novel is a passage in a letter written by John Keats on this date, April 8, in 1818, to the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats is describing his upcoming tour of Scotland and the North of England, in his customary manner – ironically, colorfully, memorably:    

“I will clamber through the Clouds and exist. I will get such an accumulation of stupendous recollections that as I walk through the suburbs of London I may not see them—I will stand upon Mount Blanc and remember this coming Summer when I intend to straddle Ben Lomond—with my soul!—galligaskins are out of the Question.”

What are they and why are they out of the question? Next stop, the Oxford English Dictionary, where one of the citations is Sterne’s usage. The dictionary cites eight appearances by the word dating from 1577 to 1832, the last being Thomas Carlyle’s in his review of Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “What jackets and galligaskins had they; felt headgear, or of dogskin leather?” Here is the OED’s primary definition: “A kind of wide hose or breeches worn in the 16th and 17th c.; later, a more or less ludicrous term for loose breeches in general.” Later, the word came to mean “leggings, gaiters” and “a variety of the cowslip (Primula veris).” The etymology is convoluted and inconclusive: “apparently an interpretative corruption of the 16th cent. French garguesque, a metathetic variant of greguesque,” and so on for another two hundred words.”

Let’s get back to Keats. He will not wear rustic rig and makes fun of himself – a consumptive who stood five feet tall contemplating mountaineering in the Alps. As is typical of our poet when writing a letter, Keats modulates from zaniness to sublimity and back:

“The innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty. I know not your many havens of intenseness—nor ever can know them: but for this I hope not you achieve is lost upon me: for when a Schoolboy the abstract Idea I had of an heroic painting—was what I cannot describe.”

No comments: